Augusta Can Make Its Latest Act More Than Merely Symbolic
A week after the fact, Augusta National's admittance of its first two female members -- Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore -- remains a feel-good story.
And what's not to like? In an instant, golf became less susceptible to caricature at a point in which its footing has been getting less sure. The game's male leaders got to appear altruistic and politically correct on an issue that had been making them increasingly uncomfortable. Professional women gained ground in the ineffable but vital world of informal networks. It was the kind of "twofer" that major organizations are always looking for, image enhancement by doing the right thing.
But even though history was made, if all that follows is self-congratulation and joyous relief, nothing transformative will result. And one of golf's thought experiments -- "When someone becomes a member of the Augusta National, does it make a sound?" -- will remain unresolved.
For Rice's and Moore's memberships to truly resonate, Augusta will have to push itself beyond the symbolic to the publicly active. As an ostensible leader of a sport at a crossroads, the issue at hand is obvious. Women, who make up less than 20 percent of all golfers, perennially drop out of the game at more than double the rate of men.
This was the harsh reality PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem ever so gently nailed when he praised the club's decision for coming "at a time when women [potentially] represent one of the fastest growing segments in both playing and following the game of golf." Simultaneously, Augusta was transferring its old baggage on the already overflowing lorry of the male-only Royal and Ancient GC of St. Andrews, conspicuously alone among golf's power brokers open to charges of institutional sexism.
Rice's and Moore's memberships at Augusta immediately made the 258-year-old club's 2004 decision to reassign its official governance of the game everywhere in the world except for the U.S. and Mexico to an entity called the "R&A" look lame. And with British society fresh off mass celebration of female sport at the London Olympics, the ancient clubhouse next to the first tee of the Old Course became the world's only gray-stone dartboard. The taunts will get louder with next year's British Open going to Muirfield, one of three all-men's clubs on the championship rota. Ultimately, Augusta's decision may be best remembered as the catalyst that put women in the Royal and Ancient.
Regardless of what happens across the Atlantic, Augusta now has a greater perceived responsibility to lead. Under Billy Payne's chairmanship, the club has committed to helping grow the game "especially among the younger demographic." Rice noted the effort in her comments after becoming a member, and it opens up a possible scenario in which both Rice and Moore could become dynamic role models inspiring new girl golfers.
That would be a dramatic break with tradition at a club where the only duties that aren't private come when serving on mostly behind-the-scenes tournament committees. But the club has already treated Rice and Moore as special cases by acknowledging their memberships, having done so before only with its first African-American member, Ron Townsend, in 1990. While Townsend has kept a customary low profile, Payne's identity as the club's most progressive chairman might allow Rice and Moore to have unprecedented influence.
The point is, until further notice, there is an increased sense of possibility amid the Georgia pines. Just as Rice was projected for membership a few years ago, so have Nancy Lopez and Judy Rankin. If that happened, could a woman's major over the storied course be in the pipeline, with the members' tees the perfect length and all the iconic bridges the perfect stage? It's an obscure fact that the club hosted the 1937 and 1938 Senior PGA, and a well known one that Payne's unrequited dream was to have the course hold the male and female golf competition at the 1996 Olympics. If none of the above happens, and Rice and Moore blend into the usual sea of green, two more powerful but essentially anonymous members, Augusta will have played it too safe and left golf too unchanged. Credence will also be given -- unfairly or not -- to Martha Burk's charge that Augusta would still be without a woman member if it had not been pushed
And that will not feel good.